Bubble Maineia is a drink and snack shop on Commercial St. run by a Taiwanese family. The offerings are predominantly Taiwanese/Chinese in origin ranging from the bubble tea (the East Coast translation of boba tea from the West Coast) to snack foods like steamed buns and dumplings. So when it was announced that the family was opening up a second location as a noodle/dessert bar on Temple Street, I was intrigued. Besides, how can you say no to the vividly blue octopus offering you noodles in one tentacle, boba tea in another, and the Maneki neko (fortune cat) in yet another?
We ordered the two things that I knew best from weekly/monthly devourings in my childhood - the beef stew noodle soup and Taiwanese cold sesame noodles. I was a bit nervous during the 5 minute wait for our food to be served because I had grown up with both of these dishes. Would the flavors match up? Would there be too much compromise?
We first dug into the cold sesame noodles. A simple dish made with flat noodles, julienned vegetables (cucumber, carrot, etc.), and a peanut-sesame sauce that was clearly laced with chili oil. The noodles were cooked perfectly in the sense that Chinese cuisine doesn't cook noodles al dente like Italian cuisine does, but Chinese noodles are also not overcooked until they disintegrate in your mouth. The sauce wasn't grainy from the sesame, but it was also very smooth and not watered down. Absolutely delicious. I had to force myself to stop shoveling the noodles in my mouth before I ate more than my half of the dish.
Now a spicy beef noodle soup doesn't sound like a great idea during the summertime, but due to the ample air-conditioning of the restaurant, we didn't need to worry about sweating it out. This is a famous Taiwanese dish called hong sao niu ro mien, or braised beef noodle soup. This was the ultimate challenge. I ate this every week as a kid for a good ten years straight at some of the best hole-in-the-wall restaurants in southern California and Taiwan. Would I be disappointed? At presentation, three things immediately put me at ease. First, the generous use of Taiwanese bok choy (greener in stalk than the typical white bok choy). Second, the reddish tint of the amply-sized beef from a slow braising process. Third, the minced pickled mustard greens sprinkled in the center. No compromise yet. My first bite of beef with the soup was incredible. The meat was so incredibly tender and flavorful from the slow cooking in a traditional Chinese beef stock. And the soup itself was wonderful. The only thing missing was satay barbecue sauce - the gritty, spicy barbecue sauce that comes in a silver can with the cow in a chef's hat and apron. I live on that stuff with this soup. Later, I chatted with Mrs. Chen, the owner of both Bubble Maineia establishments, and she confessed that she was afraid American appetites wouldn't appreciate it. Discovering that I was Taiwanese myself, she quickly offered us some extra chili oil to mix into the cold noodles and beef noodle soup, which was a perfectly good alternative.
My only technical complaint was that they bought standard American soup spoons (the round spoon base for good clam chowder eatin') which made the noodle soup somewhat difficult to eat/drink once it passed below a certain level. Clearly, the solution is to ramp up enough business so they can invest in some proper disposable Chinese soup spoons for plentiful eating!
One side also comes with any rice or noodle dish. But since this was their first month, they gave both side choices as a 'promotion' of each.
The spicy chicken salad was a surprise winner in our minds. Cucumber, shredded chicken, chili pepper, and a Chinese vegetable that I can't properly translate (it's the yellowish-clear stuff) gave a nice spicy, vinegary flavor. The clear vegetable shreds were actually my favorite part, and made me completely forget that this was a chicken salad.
The sweet and sour cucumbers were also a throwback to home. These cucumbers were a bit too sweet for me, and I hoped that the sugar-rice vinegar batch they used that day was having an off day.
On top of all that, Mrs. Chen had a promotion for the month of June that offered free house teas for any rice or noodle dish ordered. We both asked for green tea, one sweetened, the other unsweetened. It was great to see (well, technically taste) that they still knew how to do drinks right at their new location. The green tea had the wonderful light floral taste to it, indicating the owner's careful selection of green teas to brew.
Overall, we were quite pleased with the entire experience. We went in after a long Wednesday's worth of errands after work and collapsed in a heap at Bubble Maineia's Noodle Bar seeking some nourishment. We were quite full and energized by the end of the meal and had a wonderful conversation with Mrs. Chen about Taiwanese cuisine and the presence of Chinese people in Maine. She was quite excited to hear that I really enjoyed her beef stew noodle soup because she made it herself, and insisted that I try her sister's curry chicken the next time I come by. Our tab totalled out to just over $13 for two people. Even if we had paid for our iced teas, our total would probably still be under $8-10 a person. So not only do you get genuine Taiwanese/Chinese food, but it's fantastically delicious, passes all authenticity standards, and is reasonably portioned for a ridiculously low price.
When I go back next week, I'll definitely be trying their traditional Taiwanese shaved ice to see whether that passes the test because I've been craving that for years now since I moved to Maine. I'll just keep my fingers crossed for now, but considering how happy their shaved ice looks, things are already looking positive, no?
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